Thursday, June 2, 2011

Technicolor: Vertigo

The Movie
    Hitchcock's classic.  For most movie recaps, I don't mind gabbing on about what happens here and there in the movie, but to know too much about this movie before watching it would negate the point of the film, so will keep it brief.  Vertigo (1958, directed by Alfred Hitchcock), is a slow-paced thriller set in San Fransisco. Indeed, the city and the Bay Area are just as much of a star of the film as its charismatic lead (I'm sorry that I can't attribute charisma to Kim Novak in this movie, although she does well enough in the second half).  The movie was not a box-office or a critical success when it was released, but is considered by many people today to be one of his finest.  As for me, I still prefer North By Northwest.
   Jimmy Stewart plays 'Scottie' Ferguson, a former police officer who is forced to take a leave from the police department when an on-the-job tragedy that leaves him with acute acrophobia, or fear of heights.  As he is pondering what to do to fill his empty days, an opportunity presents itself in the form of an old acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore).  This acquaintance is very concerned about the mental state of his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak).  As Elster tells it, Madeline may or may not be possessed by the spirit of a Spanish woman who, deprived of her child and love, took her own life a century earlier.  Jimmy is hired to investigate Madeline's activities, but and soon finds himself becoming over-involved and fascinated by the vulnerable blonde...

   How do you visually and non-verbally represent the state of a disturbed person's mind?  For Alfred Hitchcock, it meant swirling visuals and rapid-fire changes from normal color to color overlay.  The highly saturated look of Technicolor was perfect for these sort of effects, and Hitchcock was familiar with the process having made his first Technicolor picture, Rope (also starring Jimmy Stewart), ten years prior to filming Vertigo.
   Technicolor was formed as a company in 1915 by three engineers, two of them from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the Tech in Technicolor), according to this excellent website.  The intent of the two founders was to devise a workable method for filming and projecting color images.  The first film from the new company was shown in 1917, but the early technology used two separate projectors and the alignment of the two to form a cohesive image proved to be too difficult for frequent use.
The Toll of the Sea:  red, green, no blue. 
   In 1923, the group finally turned a profit with The Toll of the Sea, filmed by a new process that utilized a beam-splitting prism to separate the filmed image into red and blue-green negatives.  Once developed, the negatives were aligned and run through the projector.  Over the next several years, studios would commit to filming partial segments of certain films using the Technicolor process, but held off using the method for complete movies.  In 1926, Douglas Fairbanks commissioned the process for The Black Pirate.  The film was a success, but for Technicolor, it was another learning exercise; after successive showings, the heat of the projection lamp warped the two prints, causing a distortion in the film that caused erratic changes in projection focus.  Each print was sent back to Technicolor to be flattened, an expensive undertaking.
   The Viking, filmed in 1928, was the first full length Technicolor film with sound and using the new dye transfer technique that eliminated the need for back-to-back prints, putting all colors on one film strip, although the technology to capture only two colors was available at the time.  The new process was well-received and several new pictures were commissioned, but with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, business took a hit.  The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) was the last such two-color film.
   Over a period of the prior years, the group had not been sitting on their laurels, and in 1932 they went to Walt Disney to see if his studio would serve as guinea pig for their 3-strip process.  Flowers and Trees, a Silly Symphony musical cartoon, was the result.  In the 3-strip process, a black-and-white receiver film was coated with a film that would allow it to accept the color dyes.  Green, red and blue negatives were also created.  Through a special process involving a gelatin wash, complimentary dye colors to the green, red and blue (cyan, magenta and yellow, respectively) were printed on the black-and-white ground film.  The accuracy needed for this process was printing within 8/10,000 of an inch.  Becky Sharp (1935) was the first full-length, three-strip picture.  The last was made in 1953 after Eastman Kodak developed the technology to replace the bulky three-strip camera with a single-strip.
   In 1952, a camera had been developed that recorded images to film using standard color photography processes.  Although the bright look and high quality of Technicolor remained popular for some time, it was a time-consuming and expensive process, made even more expensive by the requirement that each Technicolor camera was rented from the company and was accompanied by a color specialist and the need for the intricate dye transfer process.  By the time Vertigo was made, use of Technicolor was in slow decline.

Links and Sources
Technicolor, Wikipedia
Most of the material summarized above came from ten pages of easily understood Technicolor history at the American Widescreen Museum website
I tend to agree with several points about the movie noted here (spoiler)

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